This extraordinary pair of substantial lion-like creatures is without precedent. Certainly, we know of no others quite like them, published or otherwise. The opulence of their bearing and construction suggests they have come from a palace in the Deccan.
Constructed from cast bronze or brass elements, the two are hollow but heavy, being of thick metal walls. The robustness of their construction together with their size suggests they served an architectural purpose. Perhaps they were intended to serve as supports for rods or circular beams, or were elements of a fountain. Certainly, they are reminiscent of the lions that hold up the fountain in the Court of the Lions in the main courtyard of the Palace of the Lions in the heart of the Alhambra, the Moorish citadel in Granada, Spain. (The palace and fountain was commissioned by the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus in the second half of the 14th century – see the final image below.)
The lions are in stylised form and stand on four hollow legs which are open at their ends. They have short, tails which also are open. Each also has a rounded, feline head, with a huge, circular gaping mouth with a small tongue attached to the lower lip. They have coffee bean-shaped eyes, and erect, pointy ears. The lower chest of each has a small circular hole and there are small circular holes beneath each of the ears. Each has on the back of its head a mysterious tear-shaped cartouche, the purpose of which is unclear. Three rings are engraved around the necks of each and the lower leg of each has been cast with a raised ring.
The surfaces of each show a multiple and varying layers of brown, black and red lacquers having been applied in the past.
Well-cast examples of bronzes that often incorporate animal elements are associated with the Islamic sultanates of the Deccan of the 17th century, which ran below the lands of the Mughal empire, across the mid-section of the Indian sub-continent. Najat Haidar & Sardar (2015, p. 207) illustrates an item identified as a ‘steel object, possibly a door knocker or catch’ which has some resemblance in form to the open-mouthed lions here, although it is much smaller. The same authors mention that water was an important element in Deccani palaces. Buildings were built near to reservoirs allowing fountains and ornamental ponds to be set up throughout palaces. They illustrate (p. 233) two cast and engraved bronze elements of fountains, both of which incorporate zoomporhic elements, further suggesting one possible intended function for the lions here. Jasol (2018, p. 209) illustrates a Deccani cast bronze cannon in the form of a wide-mouthed makara which also seems to relate to the lions here.
The two are in fine condition. There is some light denting to the back of the head of one, and a mark to the breast of one caused by the past affixing of a label – but this is relatively trivial. The two are magnificent sculptures.
Folsach, K., von, Art from the World of Islam: in the David Collection, 2001.
Jasol, K. et al, Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2018.
Najat Haidar, N., & M. Sardar, Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.
Stronge, S., Tipu’s Tiger, V&A Publishing, 2009.
Zebrowski, M., Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India, Alexandria Press, 1997.